October 2015 Special Series: Egypt
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Cairo as you feel/see it?
Cairo took its name from a word that means “unconquerable.” The word refers to its enemies and has come to mean both its enemies and the ones who love it. I, who live in its center, am madly in love with it, despite all the chaos and noise—I’ve seen it conquer the weak, and the immigrants who came from all over Egypt as it was their only chance for sustenance. That witch that pulls in all the money-hungry and those thirsty for fame. She brought them all to chew them up slowly. Just one from hundreds of dreamers will get a chance and make it. The rest will sit at the coffee shop, drink coffee, and curse them all. That witch will never reject anyone but she might let you fall under rushing feet, stepping on your body with no mercy, and you won’t get a glimmer of an apology.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in Cairo?
The fire-eater: in a little tiny coffee shop next to Al Qoryeah, in the neighborhood of Bab al-Louk, Kareem was filling his mouth with kerosene. He kept it in to spray the torch for the second time. The fire left his mouth to the torch—in just seconds—then he dipped it back into his mouth to put it out. And so on. Kareem was fourteen years old when he told us that he did not feel comfortable sitting on a chair next to us sipping cold lemonade. I did not ask him if he lost his sense of taste yet after the sharp kerosene. We knew from his street address that he lived near a big factory. My friend knew its owner, and she could arrange to find him a job there. My friend also suggested that he could sell some stuff on a table in front of his house. Kareem promised that he would quit this dangerous job. We brought him pens and paper and wrote down all the things he needed for his new life. Kareem promised us he’d stay away from the fire, and the next day he was standing there, calmly spraying the torch with kerosene. He told us: “It’s my only job. I don’t know anything else.” He tried to avoid eye contact with us and we with him.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?
The city looks like us. It imitates us and does what we do. I did not notice that until the revolution, when we were all filled with contrasts—there was the city washing its elegant face, old architecture fading, beauty buried beneath chaos, and then it was pure and shining. The squares were filled and the streets empty of everything except hope and when I watched closely, I noticed the city when it laughed with us. After he (Mubarak) stepped down, the city was happy, just like us, and there wasn’t even one single paper forgotten in the road.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Naguib Mahfouz, Baha Taher, and from the younger generations, Alaa Khaled, Monsoura Ezz El Din, Yusef Raka, Mustapha Zikry, and Mohamed Abd El Nebi.
Is there a place here you return to often?
Soltan Hassan’s mosque, where I find a rare peace hardly ever found in a city like Cairo. I’m always inspired by silence, a silence that can only be broken by doves flying close to exchange looks with me and fighting with love over the open spaces.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Café Riche, the one-hundred-year-old place that became an icon after Naguib Mahfouz made it his favorite place in the 1960s to hang out with other writers. That place also played a role in the 1919 revolution.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
There are a lot of hidden cities in the city such as Giza, Helwan, Misr El Adima, or Old Cairo, my favorite of all time.
Where does passion live here?
Passion is on the Nile. The rich people will sit on the banks of the Nile in Zamalak and Garden City to consume their very expensive meals, and the poor people will feel the same pleasure sitting on plastic chairs on Qasr El Nil Bridge, where they eat grilled corn or drink chickpea stew. That side of the Nile can only offer itself to its lovers.
What is the title of one of your works about Cairo and what inspired it exactly?
Many of my poems are scenes expressing the feeling of the city. For example, “Schizophrenia,” “At this Station,” and “Embrace.” I am amused by the journey of human beings and their surroundings.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cairo does an outside exist?”
Gihan Omar has three poetry collections: Walking Behind the Mirror, Before We Hate Paulo Coelho, and Light Feet. Her works have been translated into English, French, Bosnian, Korean, and German.